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Picture Books that Spark Joy and Encourage Play

Book Reviews

Written by Corrinne Averiss; illustrated by Isabelle Follath
Published by Quarto Publishing
ISBN # 978-1-91027-766-9 

“Joy is what makes your heart happy and your eyes twinkle.” In Joy, we meet a young girl named Fern who loves her Nanna, especially Nanna’s butterfly cakes, mantelpiece mice, and smile. But Nanna has not been herself lately. When Fern asks her mother about Nanna, her mother replies, “It’s like the joy has gone out of her life.” So, Fern decides to go in search of joy to bring it back into Nanna’s life. She gathers a net, a paper bag, and a saucepan as part of her joy catching accoutrement and heads to the local park. Finding joy turned out to be simple, but catching it was hard. Fern returns to Nanna empty-handed but as she tells Nanna about the joyful things she saw, it brings Nanna the “biggest, widest Whoosh of a smile Fern had ever seen.” A touching and inspiring intergenerational story, Joy invites young readers to poignantly consider the power each of us has to bring joy to others through our stories and our presence. Isabelle Follath’s artwork captures Fern’s boundless imagination through interspersed colorful and gray-scale pages that invite young readers to make inferences about how the characters feel. Joy offers elementary classrooms countless opportunities to help students contemplate their own definitions of joy.

High Five 
Written by Adam Rubin; illustrated by Daniel Salmieri
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN # 978-0-525-42889-3

From the creators of the beloved, playful picture books Dragons Love Tacos and Secret Pizza Party comes an interactive, rhyming picture book that invites readers to tap into their most creative high-fiving skills. Speaking directly to readers, a high-five champion named Sensei prompts readers to slap the pages with their best high-five skills as they move through the rounds of a challenging, prestigious high-five contest against worthy animal competitors. Daniel Salmieri’s child-like, colored pencil illustrations complement the goofy narrative and cue readers with enlarged animal hands in the foreground to slap pages at the right moment.  Certain to inspire laughter, innovative high-five moves, and immeasurable enthusiasm, High Five is a sure-fire way to spark classroom community and a love of read alouds anytime of year.

The Panda Problem
Written by Deborah Underwood; illustrated by Hannah Marks
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN #978-0-735-22850-4

“I don’t have any problems. Lovely view, lots of bamboo to eat, sunny day–what could be better?” Every story needs a problem. Or does it? New York Times bestselling author Deborah Underwood has crafted a hilarious, inventive, laughter-inducing meta tale. The narrator of the story speaks directly to the main character, a panda, who dares to ask “Why?” when told that his story needs a problem. From start to finish hilarity ensues as the panda and narrator engage in a debate about the nature of stories. Adding to a growing collection of meta fiction stories in the field of children’s literature, The Panda Problem cleverly problematizes the traditional story structure model often perpetuated in school. Colored-pencil illustrations by Hannah Marks complement the witty dialogue between the narrator and the panda. A joyful read aloud, students’ ideas about stories will be broadened through this memorable tale that defies stories.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

 Grades PreK-5 


Joy List Making through Shared or Interactive Writing. At the start of Joy, Fern lists things that feel joyful in her life, like dancing after dinner, giggling with her friend, and whooshing down a slide. Through shared or interactive writing, start a class joy list that documents students’ ideas about things in life that bring them joy. Extend this conversation to include when learning, reading, and writing feel joyful. Have students create their own joy lists in notebooks and give periodic opportunities for students to reflect on new things in life that bring them joy and invite them to share those things with the class periodically. 

We’re Going on a Joy Hunt. Like Fern, provide students with various materials to make their own joy catching kit ike paper bags, nets, and coffee cans. Refer to Fern’s list of what she sees on her joy hunt in the park and help students anticipate what they might see on their own joy hunt. Go on a field trip around the school or local neighborhood for students to notice and name things they see that are joyful. Have students record what they find through pictures, words, and/or photographs. You may want to extend this to families as an opportunity for home-school literacy connections and have students engage in a joy hunt in their homes or neighborhoods adding on to their initial joy findings. 


Interactive Picture Books Invite Physical and Playful Connections to Texts. Interactive picture books help students connect their bodies to the books they are reading in participatory ways. Use High-Five as an anchor text for a series of interactive picture book experiences. Gather other interactive books that tap into students’ creative and imaginative capacities like Press Here, Say Zoop!, Mix It Up, and Let’s Play by Hervé Tullet; Bunny Slopes by Claudia Rueda; Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter; This Book is Full of Monsters by Guido Van Genechten; Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley; I Say OOH, You Say AAAH by John Kane; and Plant the Tiny Seed by Christie Matheson. Consider using interactive picture books with the whole class, small groups of readers, and in individual conferences with students, especially when you recognize that students need a jolt of joy. 

Panda Problems

Laughter as an Inference Tool. Encourage students to notice and name the places in picture books that make them giggle or laugh out loud. Have them describe what makes the situation so funny. Create a connection for students between times they laugh in stories and the skill of inferring. When we laugh as readers it is often because we have to infer what’s funny about the situation that may not be explicitly stated through the words like when Panda questions the narrator and describes his problem-free life. We use what we know from our own lives and what we know about the characters and we laugh. Gather other books that evoke laughter and continue to help students make the connection between laughter and making inferences as readers. At The Classroom Bookshelf, we have written about many books that evoke laughter by making inferences including Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier;  Square and others by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen; The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers; and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. (This invitation originally appeared in our Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories entry). 

Problematizing Problems: Rethinking Story Elements. One of the most thought-provoking facets of The Panda Problem is the main character’s questioning of the long-held and often perpetuated assumption that good stories have to have a problem that the character solves by the end. Engage students in a mini-debate about whether stories need to have a problem in order to be entertaining. Can stories have characters and a plot without a problem? Is it still a good story if it doesn’t have a problem? Metafictive picture books are challenging what we traditionally think about books and stories. Encourage students to notice books and stories that challenge our traditional notions, such as The Wall in the Middle of the Book by John Agee; This Is Not a Picture Book! by Sergio Ruzzier; How This Book Was Made: A True Story by Mac Barnett; Snappsy the Alligator: Did Not Ask to Be in This Book! by Julie Falatko, and The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak. 

All Three Books

Stories Spread Joy: Thinking About Audience. When Fern describes to Nanna the things she sees, it brings a smile to Nanna’s face. When readers slap the hands of the animals in High-Five and move through the competition levels, it creates feelings of success and joyful anticipation. When the panda playfully questions whether stories need to have problems, it sparks joy in readers. Help students to bring joy to others through the power of stories. Using one of the featured books as a mentor text, invite students to write and illustrate their own story that they think will inspire feelings of joy in others. Do they want to incorporate characters that help bring joy to one another? Do they want to incorporate interactivity through prompted movement for readers? Do they want to create a metafiction story where the narrator speaks directly to characters or the reader? Have a story sharing celebration with the primary purpose of bringing joy to one another. 

Understanding Emotions. Each of the featured books have characters that experience various emotions which are understood through words, color cues, and facial expressions. Explore with students the emotions the characters feel, the strategies they are using as readers to identify characters’ emotions, how the characters’ emotions change over the course of the book, and any connections they have to the characters’ emotions. Continue to help students focus on understanding characters’ emotions through their own independent reading including the reading of picture books where the illustrations help reveal characters’ emotions.   

Further Explorations

Online Resources

High Five Official Book Trailer

Book Trailer The Panda Problem. 100 Scope Notes.

National High Five Day

CBS Interview with Deborah Underwood


Agee, J. (2018). The wall in the middle of the book. New York, NY: Dial Books. 

Barnett, M. (2016). How this book was made: A true story. New York, NY: Disney-Hyperion. 

Barnett, M. (2018). Square. Somerville, MA: Candlewick. 

Bromley, N. (2017). Open very carefully: A book with bite.  London, UK: Nosy Crow Publishing. 

Cotter, B. (2015). Don’t push the button. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. 

Daywalt, D. (2013). The day the crayons quit. New York, NY: Philomel Books. 

Daywalt, D. (2015). The day the crayons came home. New York, NY: Philomel Books. 

Falatko, J. (2016). Snappsy the alligator: Did not ask to be in this book! New York, NY: Viking Press. 

Kane, J. (2018). I say ooh, you say aah. London, UK: Templar Publishing.

Klassen, J. (2011). I want my hat back. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press

Matheson, C. (2017).  Plant the tiny seed. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books. 

Rueda, C. (2016). Bunny slopes. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. 

Ruzzier, S. (2016). This is not a picture book! San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. 

Ruzzier, S. (2018). Fox and chick: The party and other stories. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. 

Tullet, H. (2011). Press here. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. 

Tullet, H. (2014).  Mix it up. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. 

Tullet, H. (2016). Let’s play. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. 

Tullet, H. (2017). Say zoop! San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. 

Van Genechten, G. This book is full of monsters. New York, NY: Clavis Publishing.  

Novak, B.J. (2014). The book with no pictures. New York, NY: Dial Books. 

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.